Hardly a day goes by without news of the multi-sided impact of the digital world, how it shapes our individual lives and our collective future. Curse and cure and contradiction, it’s all unfolding before us at hyper-speed, and it’s often difficult to keep up with all the latest gadgets and inventions.
As I try to decipher what’s going on, there’s a crucial side to the equation, however, that I also try not to forget, namely that with all the talk about artificial intelligence and virtual realities, it’s actual flesh and blood human labor that’s behind it all.
In his comprehensive and educational book, “Coders” (2019 Penguin Press), tech writer Clive Thompson tells the story of computer programmers, a workforce that is undoubtedly one of the “most quietly influential on the planet.” Thompson writes:
You use software nearly every instant you’re awake. There’s the obvious stuff, like your phone, your laptop, email and social networking and video games and Netflix, the way you order taxis and food. But there’s also less-obvious software lurking all around you. Nearly any paper book or pamphlet you touch was designed using software; code inside your car manages the braking system; ‘machine-learning’ algorithms at your bank scrutinize your purchasing activity.
While the field isn’t something I plan to pursue (I’m too much of a wannabe Luddite for that to happen), it was fascinating to learn more about what programming actually is; its language; how the work combines engineering and art, logic and puzzle-solving, passion and patience.
I also learned more about the people that do the work; how they think and why; the heady impact of being able to literally change the world overnight, particularly when an app or program generates millions of global users. Of special interest was the history, beginning with the first coders:
Brilliant and pioneering women, who, despite crafting some of the earliest personal computers and programming language, were later written out of history.”
“Coders” affirmed two things for me. One is that in the struggle for social justice and human liberation, coders are a decisive force for success—arguably the decisive force, particularly in any pursuit of a People’s Internet, or at the very least a People’s Media. Indeed, the digital battlefield is paramount, whether we’re embracing it, fleeing from it, or a little of both.
My second affirmation was being reminded, as I stated in the beginning, about the power of the working class. The Internet, embedded in the lives of billions around the globe, is routinely compared to a cloud, a place without place, without distance. But that’s an illusion. All it takes is for service to go down for us to realize that someone has to fix it, be it a broken fiber optic cable, a damaged router, or a down electrical line.
When we rely on the Internet, we rely on workers, from mainframe engineers to computer programmers to office workers to maintenance personnel. In his 2012 book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, Wired correspondent Andrew Blum describes how the Internet is:
as fixed in real physical places any railroad or telephone ever was. It fills enormous buildings, converges in some places and avoids others, and it flows through tubes underground, up in the air and over the oceans all over the world. You can map it, can smell it, and you can even visit it.”
There is a human, geographic side to the worldwide web, intricate and utterly interdependent on the other: Those who keep the power going and the work stations clean; the workers who mine and extract the silicon, the silver, copper, mercury, aluminum, tin, lead, and all the rare earth elements; the vast and global workforce that assembles the computers, smartphones and tablets. Then there are those who do the shipping and delivery, who dispose of the toxic and radioactive electronic waste.
So, as we debate the pros and cons of things like Blockchain and Cryptocurrency, weigh whether a technology can either free us or imprison us, let us never want to forget that machines, apps and devices are social products made by social beings—us.